In the middle of college I read a book that changed my life.
Now, for my friends that know me, I tend to exaggerate in my desire to share my excitement. Well, they would say exaggerate, but I would articulate it as enthusiasm. All my enneagram 7’s unite!
However, when I look back at my life and all the books that have shaped the way I see the world, this book is near the top of the short list. It changed the way I viewed my life, it changed the way I engaged others and, most importantly, it changed the way I viewed God.
That book was Prodigal God by Dr. Timothy Keller and I’m forever indebted to it shaping the way I think. The most profound aspect of the book is how he engages with the story of the Prodigal Son.
Growing up in the church, I had only heard the Prodigal Son with a focus on the younger brother and the father. Now, those are crucial characters of course, but I had never heard anyone ever talk about the older brother in the story until I read this book.
Retelling the Parable
Let’s examine the text again to see the point Dr. Keller is trying to make. First off, the context is key to understanding this passage. At the beginning of Luke 15, verses 1-2 say this: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus is speaking to Pharisees, tax collectors and sinners. Hold on to that piece of information.
Second, take a look at the beginning of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. (Luke 15:11). It’s the story about a man (the Father) who had TWO sons, an older son and a younger son.
Now, the younger brother gets much of the attention because his sin is much flashier than that of the older brother, but the older brother is just as lost as the younger. He also is a prodigal son. Sure, he’s not wasting away money or living lavishly, but he is reckless towards his relationship with his father. He could have intimacy with the father, but he chooses cold obedience and distance.
We see the older brother’s “lostness” as Keller puts it in in his response to the younger brother coming home. He isn’t excited or celebratory, but jealous and angry. What gets exposed in his interaction with his father is that he has the same heart as the younger brother at the end of the day. The younger brother simply wanted his wealth and nothing to do with his father so he left. In a turn of events, we learn the older brother wants the same thing he just goes about it a different way.
Two Paths, Same Heart
The younger brother wanted control of his father’s wealth, so he broke all the rules and left home. The older brother desired the same thing, but figured that he could gain the father’s favor, not love, by doing everything right and being the “good one”. At the end of the day, the older brother was trying to put his father in “his debt” by being obedient. Both were missing the mark.
Keller goes on to masterfully speak that both represent a way to be your own Lord and Savior. On one hand you can break all the rules, live in rebellion and make your own law. The other way is by KEEPING all the rules. That way God has to do what you say. It means we can go to church, obey the Bible and absolutely miss Jesus in the process and not really have a saving faith depending on the righteousness of our Savior.
Unfortunately, both of these paths miss the gift. The gift is never in the father’s wealth, but in relationship with the father himself. The younger brother thinks, “I’ll be happy if I am my own god.” The older brother things, “If I obey, then God will have to give me what I want.” Keller reminds us that the gospel says, “God loves me; therefore, I obey.”
As I stated earlier, the context of this story is key. There are Pharisees, tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is showing his audience that the tax collectors and sinners are the younger brother in the story who God is ready to embrace if they will accept the free gift of grace that he’s offering. The pharisees are represented by the the older brother who is overly religious, lacks an intimate relationship with the father and thinks God can be put in their debt.
A Prodigal God
If we examine the passage through this lens it comes to life in a fresh way.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him…(Luke 15:25-28)
The older brother learns of his younger brother’s return, but refuses to go to the party and instead chooses to sit in his pity, anger and bitterness. What we see is incredible.
The Father pursues.
Just like when he saw the younger brother and ran towards him, the father initiates and pursues the older brother. He goes towards him because God is always moving towards the lost.
Then he proclaims truth over him later in the passage.
31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32)
He reminds his son that he loves him and reminds him of truth to be embraced. We never get to see the response of the older brother, which leaves a cliffhanger in the story, but we do get to witness the immense love of the father. What we discover is that the true prodigal in this story is the father. He’s the one throwing around his reckless and extravagant love to both the younger and older brother. Our God is the true prodigal in the story.
Signs You Might Be an Older Brother
Keller provides a framework to help us examine our own lives to see if we are the older brothers and I would highly encourage you to reflect on these ideas. These are taken word for word from Keller’s Prodigal God Study.
28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,
A deep anger (v.28—“became angry”). Elder brothers believe that God owes them a
comfortable and good life if they try hard and live up to standards—and they have! So they say:“my life ought to be going really well!” and when it doesn’t they get angry. But they are forgetting Jesus. He lived a better life than any of us—but suffered terribly.
29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.
A joyless and mechanical obedience (v.29—“I’ve been slaving for you”). Elder brothers obey God as a means to an end—as a way to get the things they really love. Of course, obedience to God is sometimes extremely hard. But elder brothers find obedience virtually always a joyless, mechanical, slavish thing as a result.
A lack of assurance of the father’s love (v.29—you never threw me a party). As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through your goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough. What are the signs of this? Every time something goes wrong in your life you wonder if it’s a punishment. Another sign is irresolvable guilt. You can’t be sure you’ve repented deeply enough, so you beat yourself up over what you did. Lastly, there is a lack of any sense of intimacy with God in your prayer life. You may pray a lot of prayers asking for things, but not sense his love.
30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
A coldness to younger brother-types (v.30—“this son of yours”). The older son will not even “own” his brother. Elder brothers are too disdainful of others unlike themselves to be effective in evangelism. Elder brothers, who pride themselves on their doctrinal and moral purity, unavoidably feel superior to those who do not have these things.
An unforgiving, judgmental spirit. The elder brother does not want the father to forgive the younger brother. It is impossible to forgive someone if you feel “I would never do anything that bad!” You have to be something of an elder brother to refuse to forgive.
Embracing Invitation & Healing
Jesus ends the parable in Luke 15 without letting us know if the older brother goes into the party. It’s a cliffhanger, but also an invitation. There were no doubt tears in the eyes of the tax collectors and “sinners” who knew that grace was offered to them as well, but we’re not sure if the words of grace softened the hearts of any Pharisees that day.
We might not know how they responded, but there is opportunity for our hearts to be softened today. The invitation given that day is also offered to us today. God is walking out into the field of your life to invite you into the party. He’s letting you know that you can be released from your anger, joyless obedience, coldness towards others and judgemental spirit. How?
By embracing the prodigal love of the Father. He loves you so much he sent his son to die for you (John 3:16). He’s your father who is well pleased with you (Matt. 3:17) and sings praises over you (Zeph. 3:17). You don’t have to do anything, be better than you are or prove anything because Jesus has already earned everything on you behalf and gives it to you freely.
Let the initiating and prodigal love of the father melt your heart to repentance because it’s his kindness that leads you there.